Corey Vereen and the benefits of nerdiness

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An extended version of today’s feature on Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen. 

Mike Rummel calls Corey Vereen the best defensive lineman he’s ever coached.

Listen to the former defensive coordinator of West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Fla., talk about his former defensive end/linebacker’s freakish speed, reaction time and anticipation skills long enough and you’ll start to believe he once coached one of the X-Men.

But there’s a non-physical characteristic of the Tennessee sophomore defensive end, Rummel said, that explains why he’s been successful in and out of football. Rummel doesn’t mean for it to sound like a middle-school lunchroom dig, but he can’t stop it from coming off that way.

“This may sound wrong,” Rummel said. “But he was kind of a nerd.”

Tennessee senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams can’t dispute that assessment of his fellow lineman. After all, the subject in question is also an honor student computer science major who admittedly spends almost all of his time away from football playing video games and writing computer code.

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Williams said. “Vereen is definitely a nerd, man.”

But the personality traits that make Vereen a nerd, Williams said, are also the ones that got him on the field as a freshman, made him a starter as a sophomore and stand to make him a stalwart on the swiftly improving Tennessee defense for the foreseeable future. He’s meticulous and sometimes obsessive, he has an attention span that vastly exceeds that of most of his teammates and he can find entertainment in things that many find mind-numbingly boring.

“He’s a nerd in the film room too,” Williams said after practice Tuesday. “He’s in there all the time. He broke down South Carolina’s offense before we even came in today. He’s just that type of guy. He’s calling out stuff before coach even says it in the film room. He’s a real smart guy and great to have, especially on your left or your right.”

It took Rummel and the West Orange staff some time to notice Vereen’s intelligence because he was quiet, especially early in his career. There were times when Rummel wasn’t even sure if Vereen got the points he was trying to teach. But when he asked him questions, he realized just how advanced Vereen’s mind was.

“Corey was one of those kids didn’t talk a lot, but when you asked him something, it would almost seem like he knew as much as you did,” Rummel said. “Some times I say there are some kids who are too smart for their own good, but he not only did what you told him to do, but he understands why you were asking him to do it.”

Vereen’s mind was just as high functioning away from football. He was a whiz in just about every subject, specializing in math and science, but performing just as well in English and humanities. He even taught himself guitar, eventually playing “Rocky Top” on a YouTube clip after he committed to the Vols.

The humble Vereen, who wouldn’t even open up his recruiting letters in the locker room or speak about them in school because he didn’t want to show off, used his talents to help his teammates. He served as a film room tutor, but also coached them through their classwork. The teachers might not be able to get them to understand their math classes, but Vereen could.

“Always,” Vereen said. “If I know a guy is struggling, I’m definitely gonna help him.”

Said former West Orange coach Chip Petree:“He served as a mentor for kids his age and tried to set them on a straight and narrow path. It could be a kid who wasn’t even going to be a good high school player and he treated them like they were the most important player in Orlando.”

Vereen’s own film study made him nearly unstoppable as a high schooler. He could overpower and outrun offensive tackles, and his knowledge of opposing offense made him even more dangerous. He set a school record as a junior with 16 sacks, then nearly matched it with 15 the following year.

“I thought he was the best player in the state of Florida that year hands down,” Petree said.

Said Rummel: “His first step off the ball was just phenomenal. A lot of times, guys like that have a lot of offisdes penalties, but with Corey that was never the case either. Corey was in the quarterback or center’s head and he knew exactly what snap count was supposed to be and he was in the backfield before the guy had the ball in his hands. He could cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. And if he played linebacker he could show blitz from outside, look like he was coming right inside, then jump in the flats or be on the receiver before anyone would expect him to be. He was kind of a freak in that aspect.”

The freak became a three-star recruit and drew offers from Florida State, Clemson and Ole Miss among others, but was sold on Tennessee from the beginning and stuck with the Vols after they fired coach Derek Dooley and hired Butch Jones. A fan of action and adventure video games such as the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed series, Vereen decided to major in computer science so he could learn to write code and make his own video games.

“It was culture shock because it was a different language and things,” Vereen said. “It was a shocker, but I’ve gotten used to it. … I’d like to get in with companies with Microsoft, Sony, just different programming companies I’d like to work with it and branch out and eventually make my own company.”

For now, though, he’s working on becoming a cornerstone of the Vols’ defensive line. He appeared in nine games as a freshman despite a knee injury in camp that held him back. He’s started every game so far as a sophomore, recording 19 tackles including four for loss, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries for a Tennessee defense that ranks 32nd nationally and sixth in the SEC in total defense.

The Vols’ coaching staff is optimistic about him because of his quick first step and more so his attention to detail and understanding of the necessity of precision.

“IT’s having your A move, your counter off your A move,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “Understanding splits and tackles, understanding all of those things that you look for from video study and tried to gain a competitive advantage, but also the self scout of yourself. From your stance, your start your get off, your hand placement. The difference of six inches in a  hand punch in defending the run or from here to here is critical in winning or losing your one-on-one matchup for that play. He takes that to heart. He dissects every play, he internalizes every play that he’s in.”

And that might make him a nerd, but it also makes him a starter.